Mental illness is not confined to anxiety and depression

We think we’re destigmatising mental health issues by talking about anxiety and depression more, when we’re really just destigmatising anxiety and depression more, and that’s it.

I can tell you that a lot of people are going to read that sentence and think, “And?” or “What’s she talking about?” You probably thought I messed up what I was trying to say, or maybe you don’t think there’s anything wrong with that sentence. Anxiety and depression are mental health issues, right? Yes, but mental health issues are not confined to anxiety and depression.

You could argue that anxiety and depression are the more talked about illnesses because they’re the most common ones, but we don’t know just how true that is. More often than not, mood disorders that show any signs of depression, such as bipolar disorder, are put down to just that – depression. It can take years for doctors and even patients themselves to realise that there is something more to their problem.

As I said, patients can go undiagnosed for years, because they don’t really know that they have a problem. Personally, I know how that feels. I went until the age of fifteen before realising that there was something wrong with me, that this crippling anxiety I’d been feeling my whole life was not normal. Why didn’t I realise? Well, because nobody ever talked about it. Ten years ago, anxiety was still a taboo. People weren’t sure if it was a real thing, they looked down on people who had it, they didn’t understand it, and they were scared of it. And while I’m so glad that moves have been made to destigmatise anxiety and make my life that little bit easier, I can’t help but think about the people who still have a mental illness that nobody talks about. I can’t help but think about the forgotten side of mental health.

Unfortunately the likes of borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder still have a huge amount of stigma attached to them. People forget that they are a part of the group of mental illnesses, and they know little to nothing about them. Because they know nothing about them, the people who have to live with these illnesses every day are afraid to talk about them. And because they’re afraid to talk, nobody is learning.

When there’s so little information given to us about these illnesses, how are people supposed to recognise that they have a problem in the first place? Would you know the signs of borderline personality disorder if you had them? Most people wouldn’t. Oftentimes, patients are only diagnosed when their illness gets to an advanced stage, and this is what helps make up the negative stigma attached to the illness.

And that’s not the only thing that creates negative portrayals of mental illness. Patricia R. Owen conducted a study on the portrayals of schizophrenia by entertainment media, and in this study of more than 40 movies (released between 1990 and 2010) she discovered that over 80% of characters who were schizophrenic showed violent behaviour, and almost a third displayed suicidal behaviour. This portrayal that people with schizophrenia are dangerous is wrong, and it’s having a detrimental effect on sufferers who are afraid to speak out for fear of having this label slapped on them.

People have a fear of the unknown, but we can help them with that. By speaking out more about the less commonly known mental illnesses, we can break the stigma attached to them and help sufferers feel more at ease when talking about them. We think we’re destigmatising mental health issues by talking about depression and anxiety more, but we need to speak more about mental illness as a whole. We can’t keep leaving certain issues out because we’re afraid of the unknown.

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Helping a Loved One With a Mental Illness

Dealing with a mental illness can be tough. Learning to accept it as a part of your life can be a struggle, and sometimes it seems like a constant uphill battle. But something that makes it that little bit easier, is having friends and family who try to understand, and do everything in their power to help you feel better. While it can be hard to fully understand what your loved one is going through when you’re not going through it yourself, there are lots of things you can do to aid their recovery. It’s the little things that count, and here are some simple tips that could make a huge difference.

Accept that they have an illness. Don’t patronise them by telling them “it’s just a phase” or that they’ll “get over it”, especially after they’ve had a medical professional diagnose them with a mental illness. While you may have thought it was nothing before, you now have proof that there really is something wrong, and all you can do now is accept it. More often than not, people are afraid to talk about their mental illness for fear of rejection from their friends and family. Show them that not everybody is like that, be that person that they can trust and confide in. They know that if they had a physical illness, acceptance wouldn’t be a problem, but show them that you’ll accept them no matter what the problem is.

Research and educate yourself on the illness. Whether it’s something more common like depression, or something you’re less familiar with like borderline personality disorder, make it your aim to learn about the illness. When a person is first diagnosed with an illness, it can be tiring and stressful telling people the same thing and answering the same questions over and over again. If you show that you have an understanding of an illness, it will make it easier for your loved one to open up to you. For example, if they’ve just been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and are having panic attacks, all it takes is for you to ask “And what happens when you’re having a panic attack? I read that they can cause shortness of breath and shaking” for the sufferer to think, “Yes! Somebody understands!” It might seem small, but it’s one less thing for them to explain to you. Knowing that you’ve made an effort to learn about the illness will help them to open up to you more.

Ask how you can help. Instead of just presuming that you know what to do from whatever research you’ve done, ask them if there’s any way that you can help. Of course you can incorporate what you’ve learned into this, but there might be something more specific and personal that helps your loved one out. After all, everyone is unique and we all deal with things differently. Just a simple text saying, “You looked a little down today. Is there anything I could do to help?” is showing them that you’re aware of what they’re going through and that you care.

Listen to them. Sometimes when your mental illness, whatever it is, has taken its toll on you and you’re having a bad day, all you need is somebody to talk to. What your loved one needs right now is a listener, not somebody who’ll butt in every five minutes with “Yeah that happened to me before but…” or “It’ll be fine as long as you…” Your friend or family member is in a state of distress, and you can’t be of any help to them unless you hear the full extent of how they’re feeling. Let them get everything off their chest, and then you can offer them your advice.mh6

Encourage them to try new treatment methods. Getting better can be a very slow and gradual process, and from herbal remedies to hypnotherapy it can all seem a bit much. If the medication they’re on isn’t working, encourage them to go back to their doctor to see if they can switch it up. Different medication works for different peo
ple, and sometimes it can take a while to find the one that’s best suited to you. Don’t let them give up, and keep reminding them that they will eventually find something that makes them feel better.

If you know someone with a mental illness, then I really hope this post has helped you see how you can help. If you have a mental illness yourself and your friends and family are struggling to understand, show them this. Whether you plonk the laptop in front of them on the kitchen table or just send them a link on Facebook, the chances are they’ll read it, and hopefully learn a thing or two.

Choose your words wisely. If you want to be a good friend, don’t say things like “cheer up” or “there’s people out there who have it worse”. Chances are, your loved one has heard this all a million times before, but does it help? No. If anything, saying something like this to a person with a mental illness will drive them further and further away from you, it will be clear to them that you don’t understand what they’re going through.